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Stripped of his police powers, new CPD union president wants to chart a new course

“There is obviously large support for my style of calling it like I see it,” said John Catanzara. “But I also realize there’s some other people within the Lodge who think I’m just some carnival barker who’s just out to put on a show. I know I have work to do to change their minds, which I have three years to do.”

Newly elected Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 7 President John Catanzara speaking in October 2019.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

John Catanzara, the newly elected president of the Chicago police union, plans to bring a “totally different perspective and attitude than the previous administration.”

Catanzara’s runoff election victory over incumbent Kevin Graham, announced Friday by the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 7, is indeed expected to mark a watershed moment within the FOP.

“There is obviously large support for my style of calling it like I see it,” he said. “But I also realize there’s some other people within the Lodge who think I’m just some carnival barker who’s just out to put on a show. I know I have work to do to change their minds, which I have three years to do. I hope they allow me the latitude . . . until they see some results.”

Catanzara’s three most recent predecessors — Michael Shields, Dean Angelo Sr. and Graham — each served only a single term as president. Catanzara is believed to be the first leader of the FOP to be elected while stripped of his police powers.

The 25-year department veteran was stripped of his police powers because of a report he filed against former CPD Supt. Eddie Johnson in 2018, when Johnson participated in a peaceful protest with Rev. Michael Pfleger that shut down the Dan Ryan Expressway. The CPD’s Office of News Affairs said Monday that the internal affairs investigation into Catanzara is ongoing.

Earlier in his career, Catanzara was recommended for firing in 2012 because he was working as a security guard at an Old Town restaurant while on medical leave from the CPD, a claim he disputed. He eventually was suspended for 20 days.

All told, Catanzara has been the subject of 50 misconduct complaints since he joined the CPD in 1995, according to a database maintained by the Invisible Institute. Of those 50 complaints, 10 have been sustained, according to those records.

The new FOP president called the punishments “absolutely ludicrous” and blamed them on a “lack of accountability from white shirts [supervisors] within the CPD.”

Catanzara’s political beliefs — which CPD officers are forbidden to express while on duty — have also sparked controversy.

He was reprimanded in 2017 for a viral social media post that featured a photo of him in his CPD uniform expressing support for President Donald Trump. Catanzara has, on several occasions, worn a Trump athletic jersey in public.

Trump tweeted a congratulations to Catanzara on Sunday. Catanzara said he wouldn’t wear a Trump jersey again but that he “has the president’s back no matter what” because of Trump’s frequent praise of and support for police officers.

As union president, Catanzara said his first priority is securing a new contract, which the union has been without for more than two years. He also hopes to expand union diversity and participation across gender, race and age divides, and create a “political action committee” within the union to influence aldermanic races.

He said he’s already scheduled a meeting with CPD Supt. David Brown this coming week and he hopes to meet with Mayor Lori Lightfoot the following week.

The FOP board voted in December to turn to an arbitrator to help settle the contract negotiations, but Catanzara said he wants to table arbitration for the remainder of the pandemic. He said he’s willing to compromise on the issue of CPD disciplinary procedures, a sticking point for Lightfoot, to initiate more productive negotiations.

“I absolutely want to come with a fresh approach [from] what they have seen from the Lodge before, in both directions — in openness and a little more forcefulness, if need be,” he said. “I understand negotiations are a little give-and-take, but that also means give-and-take on [Lightfoot’s] end, too.”

Catanzara also ripped Lightfoot and Gov. J.B. Pritkzer’s stay-at-home order as “extremely unconstitutional” and claimed its enforcement puts the CPD in a “very precarious position.”

“[If] the city is going to pay not only the civil lawsuits for their end of it, but also indemnify the officers fully and pay whatever damages are levied against the officer personally, then fine,” he said. “But that’s not going to clearly happen.”

Catanzara nevertheless said he hopes he, Brown and Lightfoot can put their “preconceived notions” of each other aside to negotiate toward meaningful changes in their upcoming meetings.

Lightfoot’s cold war with the FOP could turn into a deep freeze with Catanzara at the helm, but the mayor is trying to start off on the right foot.

“I know of him, but we don’t have a particular relationship,” the mayor said Monday.

“I reached out to him to congratulate him on his victory. I hope that we’ll be able to find common ground on issues that are important — not only to his members, but the department and the city.”

Contributing: Fran Spielman